Monday, July 27, 2009

Another Day in the Sumatra Bureau

Posted by John

Since Americans are as rare as unicorns here in North Sumatra, Danielle and I have often found ourselves becoming informal U.S. ambassadors to this part of Indonesia. (Sumatra has some of the world’s richest ecosystems, with orangutans, tigers and helmeted hornbills, but no unicorns, as far as anyone knows, so I think this metaphor works.) Almost all of our exchanges with people wanting to learn about our country have proven pleasant, but this U.S.-Indonesian comity suffered a setback last week when the discussion turned to the Middle East.

Most of these discussions about the United States have taken place at the Indonesian-American Friendship Association in Medan (known by its Indonesian initials, PPIA). Every day during the week, I spend an hour and a half talking about the United States to high-school students in PPIA’s English-language courses.

Some of the students speak an impressive amount of English, but since others struggle with it, I restrict my remarks to the basics. We talk about teenagers’ daily lives in the United States, and the Indonesian students are shocked to learn that their American contemporaries don’t start the day with a big bowl of fried rice at 5:30 in the morning. If we have time, the class places New York and Los Angeles on a map, does a quick gloss on U.S. history from George Washington to Barack Obama, and spends a moment mourning the passing of Michael Jackson

The stakes for the Grennan-Lussier U.S. Sumatra Bureau increased dramatically, however, when some of Danielle’s college-aged research assistants asked her to present a lecture in Indonesian on “Barack Obama as U.S. President” at the University of North Sumatra’s Sociology Students Association. After explaining to the students that she doesn’t specialize in U.S. politics, Danielle agreed to make a short presentation and enlisted my help. The day before the event, she learned that this informal student seminar had metastasized into an open lecture requiring a PowerPoint presentation.

That last task fell to the Research Department at the Grennan-Lussier Sumatra Bureau. Since Danielle’s days are full of interviews with Indonesian voters, a short-staffed Research Department of one (yours truly) cranked out a PowerPoint that highlighted differences between Democrats and Republicans, provided a prĂ©cis of the 2008 presidential election and outlined the Obama Administration’s priorities on the economy and health care. It fell to Danielle to translate into Indonesian nuances of a health care system and tax code that make little sense in English.

Posters for the lecture advertised a 9 a.m. start time, but “9” translates into Indonesian as “9:15...maybe 9:25...okay, 9:30 at the latest.” So from 9 to 9:30, Danielle and I were left alone to soak in the grandeur of the venue, with its formal portraits of university officials, scarlet curtains and ergonomic executive chairs encased in some sort of shrink wrap. Danielle’s research assistants all donned smart blazers with the Sociology Student Association’s crest and rushed around setting up chairs and a sound system. We were seated at the front: Danielle at the microphone, me at the computer ready to switch PowerPoint slides and perhaps offer the services of the vast Grennan-Lussier Research Department if a particularly difficult question emerged.

After a quorum assembled around 9:30, Danielle received a series of introductions from her students. She then flawlessly delivered the 20-minute presentation she’d rehearsed the evening before, confidently wielding Indonesian to rattle off statistics about the U.S. unemployment rate and the percent of the country’s economy devoted to health care. It was a brilliant set piece, designed to provide an introductory overview of the U.S. political system to a foreign audience.

But then the set piece ended and events returned to real time, as members of the audience peppered the important American scholar from Berkeley with questions on whatever topics struck their fancy. Even though she’d been asked to present on Obama and domestic U.S. politics, the questions quickly took on the feel of a final oral exam in U.S. foreign policy, with the added challenge of trying to converse in Indonesian.

One student who asked about U.S. objections to Iran’s nuclear program received a two-minute, Indonesian-language distillation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, based on bits and pieces Danielle picked up in her work at the Kennedy School. Someone else asked about the impact the U.S. financial crisis would have on the Indonesian economy. When Danielle received a tough two-part question on U.S.-China relations, she started answering the first part and scribbled a note to me: “What do you know about China’s role in the U.S. economy?”

Panicked, I started paraphrasing what I’ve read in Niall Ferguson and Paul Krugman. I trudged up everything I could remember about Beijing’s fixed currency, U.S. trade deficits, and China’s involvement in the U.S. Treasury bond market. Some of the gobbledygook I summoned might have had the added advantage of being true. I don’t think my answer would have passed muster at the Council of Economic Advisors, but Danielle probably cleaned it up a bit in the Indonesian translation. Not that I would know, of course.

So this is how you end up talking in Indonesian about China’s central bank and its attempts to control inflation, wondering where things went wrong in your life. We were definitely out of our depth at that moment, but this sort of thing happens when enthusiastic students place a microphone in front of you and ask you to talk about America. You mean you want to know whether Iran’s theocratic ideology presents a unique challenge for a U.S. diplomatic approach based on common interests? Are you sure you wouldn’t rather talk about baseball and Michael Jackson?

But any anxiety regarding our dubious explanations of China’s currency policy quickly evaporated when Danielle ended up on the receiving end of one student’s harangue about Iraq and Palestine. I suppose I ended up on the receiving end of it as well, but my limited Indonesian only allowed me to discern the occasional English cognates like “jihadis.” One other student in the back clapped, but it was a pretty feeble reaction. Some people in the front row rolled their eyes in disgust. It proved an unfortunate moment—not so much for the content of the criticism, but for the blistering tone all out of proportion to everything that came before.

It’s fine to criticize U.S. policy in the Middle East, of course, but it seems like a bit of overkill to crank up your volume and rhetoric to the top register before you’ve even given someone else a chance to listen. What’s more, the questioner had only wandered in after the presentation ended. He wasn’t remotely interested in anything we had to say, and consequently, he missed the presentation’s two-minute discussion of problems with U.S. policy in Iraq and how they had affected the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. He only wanted to register his political complaints at a high decibel level. This questioner also seemed to lack any appreciation that someone had taken the time to learn his language and was trying to present in it.

Danielle handled this moment gracefully, if forcefully. She pointed out that we were not representatives of the U.S. government and had been invited to discuss the U.S. election and domestic politics. This is an academic seminar, not a political meeting, she reminded him. That said, she said she would try to answer his question and went on to talk about U.S. concerns regarding human rights violations in the 2008 war in Gaza and U.S. promises to withdraw from Iraq in 2010. (Danielle had scribbled something on a notepad asking the date for the withdrawal—in the heat of moment, I said “2011?”—I was pleased to find out later I had passed that pop quiz.) Danielle also politely explained that she was not an expert on Middle East policy, she was someone who studied Indonesia.

Not content to leave it at that, the belligerent questioner seized the microphone back from one of the student moderators. His irate behavior was particularly strange, since most Indonesians fall over themselves to be polite to us. He continued screaming, somehow finding an even louder volume. He was not satisfied that Danielle declaimed any special knowledge of the Middle East. The microphone squeaked as if under the weight of all the vitriol. “But I ask you for your opinion as a DOCTOR OF POLITICAL SCIENCE....”

Even if Danielle were already a doctor of political science, this intrepid questioner should learn that doctors of political science mostly pore through data quietly and offer tentative conclusions restricted to their area of expertise. Instead, he appeared to think he was hammering Donald Rumsfeld or Paul Wolfowitz on cross-examination before the International Criminal Court in The Hague. He didn’t seem to realize he was talking to someone studying the impact of political socialization in new democracies, not someone who was about to order up the bombing of Baghdad at the conclusion of the seminar.

The event continued for another few minutes, but the exchange about the Middle East sucked their air out of the room. A few other students had wanted to ask questions, but never had a chance. During our own post-Seminar debrief, Danielle and I both focused on how unpleasant the one questioner intent on turning the discussion to the Middle East had made the event. Even in her frustration, however, Danielle pointed to the fact that it was college students like this one who had stood up to Indonesia’s authoritarian government in the late 1990s and toppled Suharto’s dictatorship. Perhaps it’s just a matter of finding a way to channel this energy to the right target, she said. Perhaps. I admired Danielle’s generous interpretation and wished I could be as charitable.

If nothing else, last week’s seminar here in Medan made me pray for George Mitchell, the chief U.S. negotiator in the Middle East. He’s currently in Syria and Israel trying to bring Israelis, Syrians and Palestinians to the negotiating table. If Middle East issues can cause this kind of ruckus all the way in Indonesia, Lord knows what sort of mischief they create in Baghdad and Jerusalem.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Any chance you'll be posting that Power Point presentation somewhere?