Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Amazing Race 21, Episode 4

Bangil (Indonesia) - Dhaka (Bangladesh)

This week’s episode of The Amazing Race 21 began where last week’s episode had finished: in the courtyard of a high school in the town of Bangil, outside Surabaya, Indonesia.

In light of the current focus of attention on the upcoming US presidential election, the location of the “pit stop” prompts me to wonder just how much the school the race visited resembles the Indonesian schools that Barack Obama attended from first through third grade.

Obama spent two of his three school years in Indonesia in a Catholic school, and only one year in a public school. Both those schools were in Jakarta, at the other end of the island of Java. And life has changed in Indonesia, perhaps more than in the USA, in the ensuing forty years.

But there’s one key way in which the school the race visited was like the schools Obama attended, and unlike most of the schools attended by children of US expatriates: they were schools for Indonesians, not expatriates, in which the medium of instruction was the Indonesian national link language, “Bahasa Indonesia”.

Bahasa Indonesia is President Obama’s second language. He wouldn’t have been able to get passing grades in school unless he had acquired a functional ability to understand the language in which his classes were being taught, and to communicate his answers on exams. Obama probably hasn’t had much occasion to practice his Bahasa Indonesia since he moved back to Hawai’i at age ten, and it’s unclear how fluent he still is. It’s a sign of how deeply a language we learn at a young age becomes internalized, however, that forty years later, when Obama has been greeted unexpectedly in Indonesian while shaking strangers’ hands at public events or on receiving lines, he has switched from English to exchanging pleasantries in Indonesian without apparent hesitation.

Obama has said, “I don’t speak a foreign language. It’s embarrassing!” It’s not clear whether that’s an attempt to downplay the influence on him of his Indonesian experience, or simply modesty and a desire to avoid overstating his fluency in Bahasa Indonesia. But it’s also an indication that he wishes he had more linguistic ability, not that he resents having been immersed in an Indonesian-medium school. And while a third-grade vocabulary (combined with a memory from childhood of the sounds and basic grammar of the language) might not be sufficient for diplomatic negotiations, it’s more than adequate for basic social or touristic purposes (as anyone knows who has seen a third-grader pressed into service as an interpreter for their immigrant parents who are learning the language more slowly than their children).

It should be no surprise that, even if he had little or no use for Bahasa Indonesia per se, the exposure to diversity of living and going to school abroad as a child has given Obama advantages in later life. For many parents, giving their children the benefits of international experience is a major reason to take a job abroad or an international sabbatical, and take their children with them.

Most such parents, however, are afraid that enrolling their children in a school where they will be taught in a language they don’t yet know will irrevocably set back their education.

The reality, however, is that every year tens of millions of immigrants around the world go through exactly that immersion experience. Yes, they are likely to learn less of the other subjects being taught until they reach a certain level of facility in the language of instruction. But at the same time, they will learn not only the language — inherently valuable in adapting the mind to more easily learn any other foreign language later, even as an adult — but also something of the local culture that they won’t learn in an English-medium “international” school.

The culture of an English-medium international school with a student body composed of the children of other expatriates will have its own interest and value. But it will be an experience of immersion in transnational expatriate culture rather than of immersion in the place.

If you’re afraid to take your children with you to live in a place where there isn’t an English-medium school, or to enroll them in a local public school, or if others around you question the wisdom or legitimacy of making such a decision for your children (as some other expats questioned Obama’s mother’s choice of schools for him in Jakarta), remind them of the example of the President’s school experience. Whatever partisan political criticism may later have been directed at the (alleged) content of the schooling he received in Indonesia, it doesn’t appear to have stunted his education or intellectual growth once he returned to the USA. And it appears to be an experience he would choose to repeat and wishes were more common.

One of my own peak experiences with using the Internet to connect with real people on my travels, which I described in The Practical Nomad Guide to the Online Travel Marketplace, also involved a high school in Java.

My first goal when I went to Indonesia in 1994 was to visit Bandung, a somewhat smaller but still large city in the highlands closer to Jakarta than Surabaya. Bandung had at one time been the center of the Dutch colonial administration of all of Indonesia. It’s the site of one of Indonesia’s foremost universities and significant (among other reasons) for the 1955 Asia-Africa conference where, for the first time, leaders representing the majority of the world’s people (as opposed to colonial powers who ruled over them) came together in one place.

I was curious how the legacy of the Asia-Africa conference and the Non-Aligned Movement of nations to which it led is regarded in Bandung today, especially by younger generations. And I didn’t know whether I would find contemporary Indonesian political perspectives on this and similar questions published in English.

What did I do? After searching the Web to see if someone had answered this question already, I posted a query on a Usenet, the original online social networking forum, in the “soc.culture.indonesia” newsgroup: “Does anyone know whether, or where, in Bandung I could find books giving contemporary Indonesian perspectives on global politics?”

Several replies were posted in the newsgroup or e-mailed to me privately. Typically, they were wildly contradictory. One foreigner teaching at another nearby university wrote that I wouldn’t find any such books in English: Indonesian students couldn’t afford to buy any books except assigned texts, and those they mostly read in photocopied bootleg additions. If I wanted anything to read in English, I’d be limited to the International Herald Tribune or whatever few other imported publications were available at the newsstands in the “international” hotels. Several other people who claimed to be in a position to know said similar things.

But one reply came from an Indonesian graduate student at the University of Texas who had grown up in Bandung and graduated from a Catholic high school there. He gave me directions for a walking tour of the bookstores in Bandung that stocked at least some English-language books. And, in case I needed local assistance with translations, he gave me the name of his high school English teacher and the address of his old school, between the central business district and the university.

I hadn’t meant to intrude on acquaintances of someone to whom I had such a tenuous connection, but when I found myself walking past the school (after finding exactly the sorts of books I wanted, although not many of them, at the bookstores he suggested, and after spending a delightful day in the English-language collection of the library of the Asia-Africa Museum reading fascinating transcripts of the then-confidential, and thus remarkably frank, 1955 summit talks among Sukarno, Nehru, Nasser, Nkrumah, Ho Chi Minh, Zhou En-Lai, and others), I decided to drop in and pass on greetings to the teacher from his former student.

The teacher was initially quite confused (especially since I knew almost nothing about his former student), but when I told him I was interested in how his students viewed the history of their city, he invited me to ask them my questions directly. Like many students of English as a foreign language, they had few opportunities to practice with a native speaker of English. Their instructor was delighted to have me as a guest English conversationalist for his classes for the day. I was delighted too: I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity to find out what I wanted to know. I’ve found similar opportunities as a guest native speaker in English classes in many other countries since then.

You may have completely different interests, of course. But one of the points of this story is that the Internet is a tool for connecting with people, not just information, and for connecting with people in the places you plan to visit, not just for connecting with other visitors.

The person who made this high point of my trip possible was someone I never would have found without the Internet. Equally (or more) importantly, but less obviously:

  • I never would have found him on a travel bulletin board or Web site — I connected with him by way of an Indonesian community forum; and
  • I never would have gotten the benefit of his advice if I hadn’t been prepared to make my own judgments about which authoritative-sounding but conflicting opinions to believe or to disregard.

As I mentioned in last week’s column, where there are no tourists, and thus no tourist maps, you’ll have to rely on general-purpose maps. Similarly, if you go (as I hope you will) to places that aren’t mentioned in guidebooks, or pursue interests that go beyond those of the typical tourist for whom guidebooks and travel Web sites are written, you’ll need to rely on resources that aren’t intended primarily, or at all, for tourists.

In places and for purposes like this, you need to look beyond conclusionary secondary sources for tourists and be prepared to deal with diversity of factual opinions as well as of cultures. The most fruitful travel research is often primary-source research that requires primary-source research skills, including skill in identifying and evaluating sources and drawing your own conclusions under uncertainty from incomplete and contradictory evidence.

Those skills, rather than any self-defeating lists of recommended “off the beaten path” destinations, are the keys to successfully getting off the standard tourist routes.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 21 October 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Excellent post.

I have seen two reasons, one good and one bad, for why expat parents are loathe to enroll the kids in local schools.

Some corporate parents expect to move to a new country every few years. In that circumstance, it might make sense to enroll the kids in a standardized curriculum that is the same worldwide. The French lycees are a non-English example.

Meanwhile, some parents see education as a competition with other parents for prestigious university slots. They view educational choices through the prism of what will look good on college applications, and they conclude (perhaps incorrectly) that learning a language like Bahasa will harm little Cody's chances of an Ivy admission.

Posted by: Paul Karl Lukacs, 10 November 2012, 05:12 ( 5:12 AM)
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